Sports

Tom Brady May Not Be the Greatest QB Ever for Much Longer

The Super Bowl will showcase the guy who dominated the past 20 years facing the guy most likely to own the next 20.

Side-by-side photos of Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes wearing helmets on the field
Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Stacy Revere/Getty Images and Jamie Squire/Getty Images.

As is the case basically half the time, Tom Brady is back in the Super Bowl. This time, he’s there with a new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That means he has as many NFC championships in one try as Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Matt Ryan each have in their own dozen-plus attempts.

We all thought we might be finally rid of this guy, once he left Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots. But it turns out that adding a steady, capable, and alarmingly healthy veteran to a team with a good coaching staff, a good defense, and good offensive talent can work quite well, especially with conference rivals New Orleans and Green Bay imploding along the way.

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Brady is 43 years old. He’s said he wants to play until he’s 45. Reaching a Super Bowl without Belichick, and maybe winning it, has got to be the last major milestone in his milestone-riddled career. There’s a post-Brady future on the horizon. I think. Right?

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But it’s not like the NFL’s going to stop orbiting around a single quarterback once Brady is gone. Facing Brady’s team this time is reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, who’s had arguably the most absurd three-year debut in American team sports history. Every few weeks, a new Mahomes stat makes you wonder if he’s going to end up tripling his predecessors, or merely doubling them.

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This offseason, the Kansas City Chiefs signed Mahomes to a 10-year, $503 million deal, the biggest contract in sports history. In case that wasn’t a clear enough signal, the Chiefs’ franchise quarterback announced the news by tweeting, “We’re chasing a dynasty.”

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Taken literally, that means both attempting to construct one while also pursuing the current one. Since Brady had already left the Patriots at the time of that contract, this entire season, if you like storylines, was actually about Mahomes’ Chiefs stalking Brady’s Bucs.

Win or lose against Brady in this year’s Super Bowl, there’s every reason to believe Mahomes will be back. Quite possibly several times. Maybe even a Brady-ish amount of times. There’s a real chance Super Bowl 55 is a handoff (sports term) from one generation’s championship mainstay to the next.

It’s a rare thing to already know who’ll be the league’s biggest star as soon as the league’s current biggest star is gone. That’s the easy part. The more difficult question, as always, is how to define greatness. Does GOAT mean winner-est winner? Best athlete? Most consistently excellent for the longest time? Biggest numbers? All of the above? Something else?

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For a while, Brady’s contemporary in the QB GOAT debate was Peyton Manning, who usually had bigger numbers and more obvious talents, but fewer rings. Then it became the incredible and efficient Aaron Rodgers, although Rodgers has endured and/or caused more drama while staying with Green Bay than Brady did while leaving New England. Brady’s had his enormous seasons, including three MVP trophies, but his case is simple: rings, rings, and more rings. It’s hard to think of many unbelievable Brady highlights, but it’s easy to marvel at his unmatchable number of good plays in big games.

The case for someone like Manning or Rodgers takes more and more work by the year. Look at this throw. Look at that decision. Study these numbers, and pore over this footage. Let’s talk about context, from injuries to roster problems to incompetent coaches to bad luck. This side must also note how many of Brady’s biggest wins could’ve easily gone the other way, maybe even including this NFC championship against Rodgers, when the Packers chose a late field goal over letting their future Hall of Fame QB try for a touchdown.

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Anyone still arguing for a non-Brady quarterback can construct a fine house of cards, held together by the most lovingly selected nuance. For most people, this house will then be crushed by RINGZ. And as a veteran of the Emmitt Smith (championships and longevity) vs. Barry Sanders (astounding human magnificence) wars, I’m confident there will remain holdouts, no matter how many titles Brady accumulates by the end.

Unless one player can become something like the best of both worlds.

Mahomes’ career ceiling is so high it’s almost impervious to hyperbole. Barring retirement or a major misfortune, we already know he’s gunning not just for the Hall of Fame, but for the Brady echelon. “If he can keep this up for 15 more years or so, he’ll have all the records” is the kind of statement that should get you laughed out of any argument, but in Mahomes’ case it’s not laughable. We might have a single player with talent like Rodgers’, command like Manning’s, and flair for the moment like Brady’s. The biggest test might be whether Mahomes has anything like Brady’s stubbornness in the face of Father Time.

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That’s how good Mahomes is: He’s 25 years old, yet to reckon with his place in history we already have to talk about him as an eventual old man, to imagine how much his game might change by the time he’s 40 (if the concept of “games” even exists that long).

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This isn’t exactly a prediction, but there is a 2040s scenario in which most of the millennium’s Super Bowls have featured either Brady or Mahomes or both of them. That would mean that four decades of NFL history end up being dominated by just two guys. (And, you know, their collective hundreds of really good teammates.)

It’s possible, in our 2040 world, that Mahomes has topped Brady’s career passing yardage record, and done so while also piling up more no-look, off-balance, scrambling highlights than Rodgers, Brett Favre, Lamar Jackson, Drew Brees’ various sons, or anybody else.

Just imagine. A single player having both the most rings and the best stats and the best highlights. If Brady’s on-field production makes him something like football’s Bill Russell, the winner of all winners, then Mahomes could become football’s Michael Jordan.

You know, the guy who finally resolves the GOAT debate for … OK, realistically no time at all.

Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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